Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sweet Vinegar

The core of Buddhist thought is captured in the four noble truths, the first of which is: "Life is dukkha". Dukkha is a Sanskrit word which is usually translated as 'suffering', although it is generally agreed that this is too narrow an interpretation. Often the rather clumsy translation of 'unsatisfactory' is used. Probably the best translation I have heard is the colloquialism: "Life Sucks".

The origin of the word 'dukkha' alludes to a squeaky potter's wheel. I find this a far more enlightening image - life is out of balance, and that causes it to be unsatisfactory, full of suffering, and generally 'sucky'. Those of us who are Reggio/Glass fans will recognize the concept in the Hopi Indian word Koyaanisqatsi.

I find that some people are turned off by the fact that Buddhism has this concept of dukkha at its core. I have been told that people feel that this focus on suffering is negative and unhelpful.

A few years ago Benjamin Hoff's book, The Tao of Pooh popularized the old picture of the 'Vinegar Tasters'. The picture shows Confucius, The Buddha and Lao Tse (representing Taoism) tasting some vinegar. Confucius tastes the vinegar as sour, The Buddha as bitter, and Lao Tse tastes it as sweet. The usual interpretation of this image is that Confucianism sees the world as sour, and in need of structure, rules and regulations to make it better. Buddhism sees the world as bitter - full of pain and suffering, and Taoism sees the world as sweet, fundamentally good if appreciated properly. This is, of course, a biased and simplistic view, but it is true that Buddhism sees our experience of dukkha as core.

So do I feel that the focus on dukkha is problematic? Not at all. Buddhism never promises to be an easy, happy-clappy self-help path. People often forget the rest of the four noble truths. To paraphrase, they are:

  1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
  2. Suffering is caused by our attachment and aversion
  3. We can be free from suffering
  4. The way to be free from suffering is by following the path known as the Eightfold path

To me, the third noble truth is the key. We can be free from suffering, from this 'unsatisfactoriness' we experience in this life. As Kusala Bhikshu says, "Suffering is Optional".

The radical thing here is that the cause of dukkha is identified as our attachment and aversion. This is not how we normally approach life. We usually think we will suffer less if we have more of what we like, and less of what we don't like. And yet that approach is exactly what causes suffering. We need to move beyond our attachment to 'the good' and aversion to 'the bad'.

I find the message of Buddhism one of great joy. The suffering and unsatisfactoriness of this life is optional. We know the cause of suffering, and we know why our usual attempts to ease our suffering don't work. And we've been given a path to decrease our suffering.

Whether or not you are a Buddhist, you can turn your life around by recognizing that our attachment to things causes our suffering. And the eightfold path? Well, I'll go into that in another post, but it's good to know that meditation is a part of that path.


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